Wisconsin governor's 400-year veto infuriates Republicans

 July 7, 2023

The governor of Wisconsin attempted to secure a school funding increase for the next four centuries by issuing a partial veto.

This frustrated his Republican critics and represents the latest inventive use of the state's unique gubernatorial powers, as The Associated Press reported

Governor Tony Evers inserted a hyphen and "20" to change the end date for a $325 per-student expenditure increase from 2025 to 2425, as allowed by the state of Wisconsin, which permits governors to modify legislation by substituting words and letters as they see fit.

With these ostensibly straightforward modifications, Evers enacted four centuries' worth of financing increases that cannot be reversed unless a court stamps them down or a future legislature and governor intervene.

Former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle stated, "Everyone will yell and scream, but he has them."

How the Governor Pulled it Off

Wisconsin governors have the broadest partial veto power in the country because, unlike governors in other states, they can veto virtually any budget provision. This includes erasing numbers, punctuation, and words from spending legislation in order to create new laws that were not the Legislature's intention.

Evers' partial prohibition delays an increase in education funding by 402 years, which is longer than the United States' existence as a country (247 years).

Bill McCoshen, a lobbyist who previously worked under former Governor Tommy Thompson, stated, “It’s creative for sure,”

In Wisconsin, reshaping state budgets through the partial veto is a time-honored act of gamesmanship between the governor and Legislature, with legislators attempting to draft legislation that are largely immune to creative vetoes. Almost never are vetoes, even the most absurd, overridden, as it requires a two-thirds legislative majority to do so.

During a Thursday interview on WISN-AM, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos swore to try but acknowledged that it would be difficult.

Evers' 400-year veto, according to Vos, is “an unprecedented brand-new way to screw the taxpayer ... that was never imagined by a previous governor and certainly wouldn’t by anybody who thinks there is a fair process in Wisconsin.”

Former Republican Governor Scott Walker extended the deadline of a state program from 2018 to 3018 using his veto power in 2017. This became referred to as the "thousand-year veto." In addition, he postponed the launch of another program by sixty years.

Thompson was known for his use of the "Vanna White" veto, which was named after the Wheel of Fortune co-host who flipped letters to disclose word phrases.

History of Using this Measure

In 1991, Thompson issued the most partial vetoes of any governor in a single year: 457. This year, Evers made 51.

Thompson stated that he would never censure a governor for exercising a partial veto: "People are saying, 'How can he do this?'" Thompson commented on the veto by Evers. "Well, he did it."

Kristoffer Shields, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University, explained that Wisconsin's partial veto is particularly potent because it enables the governor to alter the intent of the legislature, as Evers did.

Shields stated that he will reference the most recent veto by Evers when instructing about executive authority.

“Many people in Wisconsin, I suspect, are surprised that the governor can do this,” Shields said. “And now that we know he can do this, that can lead to changes.”

A 1930 constitutional amendment established Wisconsin's partial veto power, but it has been weakened over time, including in response to vetoes by Thompson and Doyle.

In 1990 and 2008, voters adopted constitutional amendments that eliminated the ability to strike individual letters to create new words (the "Vanna White" veto) and the ability to strike words and numerals from two or more sentences to create a new sentence (the "Frankenstein" veto). Numerous judicial rulings have also diminished the veto power.

Rick Esenberg, director of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, predicted that Evers' 400-year veto would be challenged in court. Esenberg stated, “This is just a ridiculous way to make law,”

Even as questions circulate about the legality of the veto, conservatives are attempting to gain political advantage by arguing that the ever-increasing spending authority enacted by Evers will lead to higher property taxes.

"The veto would allow property taxes to skyrocket over the next 400 years," said Republican Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August. “Taxpayers need to remember this when getting their tax bills this December.”

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